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November 2013 brought the announcement of ‘the biggest change in a generation’ to GCSEs. Teachers were told that levels were going, never to return and that the majority of subjects would now be linear and terminally assessed with controlled assessments and coursework being consigned to history.
Glenys Stacey, outgoing CEO of Ofqual, described the new GCSEs as featuring ‘fresh content, a different structure (and) high-quality assessment’ but when the initial announcement was made there was significant concern amongst teachers fearful of a potential detrimental impact on their students.
Now the dust has settled and teachers and exam boards alike are readying themselves for the first delivery of the new English GCSE specifications, what opportunities and challenges will these qualifications offer, and how will teachers respond?
Besides levels going at key stage 3, the biggest change is the move to linear assessment. Controlled assessment - the revamped version of the much maligned coursework - is gone. Like it or loathe it non-examination assessment has been dispensed with in favour of 100% examined assessment, for English at least. The knock-on effects of this in terms of classroom pedagogy are not to be underestimated.
In many English departments across the country Year 10 had become the ‘Year of the Controlled Assessment’. Enthusiastic, bright eyed KS3 students arrived in the September of Year 10 to be confronted by the long list of controlled assessments that needed to be completed during the coming year. For teachers and students alike it could be a real slog to get through the controlled assessments (and the ubiquitous retakes) during the year and one that won’t be missed by many.
With controlled assessments now gone, teachers will have far more freedom to teach the way they want to, whilst addressing their students’ needs more easily. With linear assessment being de rigeur, building a skills-based curriculum that develops learners from the end of KS3 up to their GCSE exams in Summer 2017 will be the priority for all teachers. This should be an exciting time for teachers with increased flexibility and greater opportunities to teach what and how they want to teach their students.
Many schools are using this change as an opportunity to cast a critical eye over their schemes of work and the structure of their English curricula. With a skills-based approach being the most logical way of approaching a terminally assessed programme of study, the past differences between KS3 and KS4 looks less and less relevant. The focus now is far more on the ‘flight path’ of progress of each student over the whole five years of study, and naturally, curricula will need to change in response.
Here at OCR we are mindful of this shift and are working on developing our Living Texts qualification as an ideal solution to the new demands for extended curricula. We’re really pleased that schools such as Reading School are stepping up as advocates for Living Texts and the way it prepares students for the rigours of GCSE study, citing it as one of the reasons for their outstanding results.
Of course, preparing students for the linear assessment of the new GCSEs is not without its unique concerns. Many teachers are understandably worried how their students will perform without controlled assessments being part of their grade and there are particular concerns about how lower ability students will cope with the new assessment material.
OCR have done all they can to support these students by ensuring the assessment structures of the new English GCSEs are as balanced and user-friendly as possible. We have also tried to ensure all assessment questions are clear and simple with difficulty levels that gradually increase in demand. This combined with the fact that exam questions clearly signpost which skills the examiner is looking for ensures that all students are able to access questions to the best of their ability.
However, teachers will still have concerns about how students who would have previously sat a foundation paper in English will cope with the linear assessment. We are currently working on CPD to address just this with the aim of supporting teachers to enable both them and their students to make the move to the new English GCSEs as seamless as possible.
OCR also offers a range of alternatives to GCSEs as part of its ‘whole offer’ approach to qualifications. Entry Level English offers a platform to lower level students to build confidence and prepare for further study and is used in a wide range of contexts from secondary schools to special schools such as Castle School in Cambridge. Both Functional Skills and Cambridge Progression qualifications offer vocationally focussed alternatives to GCSEs which enable students to study English in a context linked to future employment.
Whatever qualifications your students are studying this year, there are a wide range of resources and CPD events available to support your teaching on the OCR website.
Best of luck for the coming academic year!
Edward Stokes - Subject Specialist - English and Creative
Ed joined OCR as a subject specialist in the English and Creative team in February 2015. Ed is responsible for Entry Level English and Living Texts, and works on the commissioning of new resources and CPD events for these qualifications and the new English GCSEs. Ed also helps to look after the OCR English twitter account and other social media including blogs and customer case studies.
Prior to working at OCR Ed was a Year 9 Progress Leader and English Teacher at a secondary school in the East of England. Ed has taught GCSE and IB English and Media Studies in a range of schools in the UK and abroad and has taught ESOL as part of the International Development Programme.
In his spare time Ed enjoys cycling and anything to do with motorbikes.